The 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground after their mine collapsed in August 2010 spurred an impromptu experiment, of sorts, into treatments for fungal foot infections.
Socks containing copper particles treated the fungal infections the workers suffered better than anti-fungal creams, suggests a report published today in the journal Archives of Dermatology.
Within two weeks of living in the hot and humid conditions, many of the miners began to experience skin problems in their feet. The socks, made by Cupron, Inc., were donated to the miners after antifungal cream failed to relieve their skin problems. Many of the miners reported their skin problems completely resolved within a week of trying on the socks, according to the report.
The sock fibers were "impregnated" with copper oxide, a known anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent.
The socks may be useful in preventing athlete's foot, particularly in miners, who have high rates of the condition (upward of 90 percent), the researchers say. The socks may also benefit policemen, soldiers, sailors and others whose feet are exposed to harsh environments, they say.
However, experts say the results are preliminary, and more rigorous work is needed to demonstrate the socks' benefit.
One of the study researchers is employed by Cupron, Inc.
Preventing foot fungus
The Chilean miners received the socks after being trapped for 36 days, and were rescued from the mine after 69 days.
Upon rescue, three of the miners had athlete's foot, seven had dry skin on the soles of their feet, two had fungal infections on their skin, three had itchy blisters on their hands and feet and one had nail fungus.
"Overall, their skin condition, especially on their feet…was extremely good despite 69 days of exposure to an environment that promoted the growth of skin-damaging microbes," the researchers wrote in their report.
Nineteen of the miners later completed a questionnaire regarding their experience with the Cupron socks.
Those miners reported a significant reduction in discomfort, dry skin, irritation and scaling after wearing the socks. For instance, 13 out of 14 miners who said they had previously experienced dry skin while in the mine said that the condition disappeared after wearing the socks.
More work needed
"The findings are encouraging," said Dr. Shasa Hu, assistant professor of dermatology and cutaneous surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study. But a number of issues with the study prevent researchers from knowing whether these socks are really effective.
For one, the miners were not assessed during the study, so the researchers can't say for sure the skin discomfort and irritation experienced in the mine were in fact related to a fungal infection, Hu said. Normally, a patient's skin can be evaluated and tested for fungus infection, Hu said, but this was not possible while the miners were trapped.
In addition, the results are based on the miner's recollections of their experience, which may not have been what actually happened, Hu said.
Future studies would also need to compare a group of people treated with the socks to a group that receives a different treatment, or no treatment, Hu said.
The study was published in the January issue of the journal Archives of Dermatology.
Pass it on: Socks that contain copper particles may ward off foot fungus, but more rigorous studies are needed to prove this.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.